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Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong Hardcover – Dec 2 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 4th Edition edition (Dec 2 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151010897
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151010899
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 16.1 x 3.5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 658 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #244,545 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Ultimately, Teachout's fine biography shows how much of Armstrong's love of music--and people--was behind that signature million-watt smile." -- Booklist "Teachout's portrait reminds us why we fell in love with Armstrong's music in the first place." --Publishers Weekly "A comprehensive, affectionate biography of arguably the single most important figure in the history of jazz...A rewarding jazz biography and a revealing look at a broad swath of American cultural history." --Kirkus Reviews "Best of all, it smartly--and simply--finds unity in contradiction." --Atlantic Monthly "Teachout delivers a taut and well-paced work that is astute in its critical judgments and gripping in its chronicle of the trumpeter's life and times." --The Weekly Standard

"...terrific biography..." --The Sunday Times (UK)

"With 'Pops,' his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists..." --The New York Times"With prodigious research and a good deal of stylistic grace, the cultural critic has produced a biography as definitive as it is incolclusive about the sources of Armstrong's artistic genius and contradictory personality." --The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"...the most comprehensive and pleasurable account yet of the trumpeter's complex life and personality. Teachout's vivid and accessible portrayal of Armstrong is one of the book's great pleasures: He will make a fan of the most skeptical reader." --Kansas City Star

"...compelling..." --The Los Angeles Times "Teachout adopts a sophisticated street-level style that mirrors what he loves best about the man known as Satchmo: Armstrong's ability (and willingness) to synthesize high and low culture for an audience as broad as his grin." --Time Out New York

"...a masterpiece." --Seattle Times

"Teachout excels at conveying the interplay between Armstrong the artist and Armstrong the entertainer, and at examining the particular challenge of his legacy." --The New Yorker

"Ultimately, Teachout's fine biography shows how much of Armstrong's love of music--and people--was behind that signature million-watt smile."

"Teachout's portrait reminds us why we fell in love with Armstrong's music in the first place."

"A comprehensive, affectionate biography of arguably the single most important figure in the history of jazz...A rewarding jazz biography and a revealing look at a broad swath of American cultural history."

About the Author

TERRY TEACHOUT is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic of Commentary. He played jazz professionally before becoming a full-time writer. His books include All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, and A Terry Teachout Reader. He blogs about the arts at

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Dave on Feb. 3 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The author writes eloquently, has done consummate research and presents a portrait of Louis with many refreshing new insights. I have every other biography, autobiography and scholarly publication about Louis, and this one by Terry Teachout must be included in the top five.

This is an even-handed portrayal, 100% fair and avoids lionizing. On top of it all, it is a heck of a good read; I read it in two sittings.
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Format: Hardcover
In Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, Wall Street journalist and author, Terry Teachout traces Mr. Armstrong's youthful journey through the winding streets of New Orleans at the turn of 20th century: from the jook joints and bordellos to a Christian boys home for wayward youth and a solitary, but beneficent Jewish home to the highest pinnacles of musical and artistic success. This was a biography that was done right.

*Why another biography?
**Two (2) historically unanswered questions about Louis Armstrong
***A brief review of Armstrong's Life
****Louis Armstrong vs. Miles Davis and Nat King Cole
*****Concluding Thoughts

*Before I read a biography, I typically find myself struggling internally like two wrestlers wanting the dominant position because biographies and, especially, autobiographies are rarely truthful or forthcoming. I generally ask myself, "Do I really want to know this person?" Or, "Will this person's life-experiences really provide me with constructive and, hopefully, universal information for my own use?"

The dilemma becomes a lot more complicated, if the person is well known and many things have already been written about her/him. What's new here that hasn't been written before considering Mr. Armstrong, himself, wrote three autobiographical volumes?

**With regards to Mr. Armstrong, there are two (2) questions that have never been answered to my satisfaction (but then, who am I to make such demands anyway?) but I'll still ask.

1. What is it about "Louie Armstrong," The Performer, which made him so beloved that even a Wall Street Journal writer would consider chronicling another chapter of his life, four decades since his passing?

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 86 reviews
50 of 56 people found the following review helpful
Easily sets the new standard for Armstrong biographies Nov. 10 2009
By MarkK - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Louis Armstrong stands as one of the legends of twentieth century music. During five decades as a performer he thrilled audiences with his cornet and trumpet virtuosity, while his gravelly voice made him one of the most popular and recognizable singers of his day. Such a career became the stuff of legend, making it difficult to discern the truth underneath. In this book, Terry Teachout undertakes the difficult task to sift though the legend to discover the man underneath.

In this he is aided by Armstrong, who left behind two autobiographies and numerous audio recordings. From them we learn a man unashamed of his impoverished beginnings in the "black Storyville" neighborhood of New Orleans. The musical scene of the town's brothels and clubs provided the young Armstrong with both his early musical education and his first employment. Teachout goes on to describe his journey during the 1920s from promising young cornet player into the headlining talent he became by the end of the decade. Teachout rightly gives this period, one that saw some of his most innovative music, considerable attention, but he challenges critics such as Gunther Schuller who dismiss Armstrong's work with the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s. These decades dominate the biography, taking up eight of the book's twelve chapters. The final chapters chronicle the established entertainer who faced the twin challenges of aging and the disdainful attitude of the younger generation of musicians who followed in his giant footsteps.

In examining Armstrong's life, Teachout brings to bear his skills as detective and storyteller. He succeeds in depicting a very human yet enormously gifted performer, a talented musician who was also a superb entertainer. His book easily supersedes earlier biographies of Armstrong in its thoroughness and readability, yet it remains frustratingly incomplete by itself. For while Teachout does an admirable job of describing Armstrong's music, the book really is best enjoyed when accompanied by the songs Teachout describes. Though the author identified thirty songs in an appendix that can be downloaded by the reader, the sheer amount of music he describes warrants more comprehensive collections, such as The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings and Louis Armstrong: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings. It is only when listening to them in conjunction with Teachout's book that the degree of Armstrong's achievement is best understood.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
By David Keymer - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Pops isn't just a good biography of Louis Armstrong's full and varied life. It's an exceptionally good biography. It shouldn't replace Laurence Bergreen's excellent Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant life (New York Times Notable Book for 1997) in anyone's library. But Teachout's book complements Bergreen's and it stand on its own as a model of sympathetic, scrupulously researched biographical writing. For those who are interested in him, there is little new that they can learn about the well examined life of this American icon.

As soon as popular critics and serious scholars started writing about that uniquely American pop music, jazz, they wrote about Armstrong. They couldn't avoid it because Armstrong, more than any other individual, set the standards and many of the conventions for jazz, in his playing and his singing. (Where would Bing Crosby have been without Louis to imitate?) He wasn't the first great jazz soloist: Sidney Bechet holds that honor by a few years. And Armstrong's seminal group, the Hot Five (later Hot Seven), played outside the recording studio just one time. It was never a working group, never a combo formed to play in the clubs and dance halls where jazz was being forged in the twenties and thirties.

Trying to imagine jazz without Armstrong is like trying to imagine modern art without Picasso or the essay form without Montaigne. His contemporaries knew it and admitted it. Even those who were on the outs with him -Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins--knew that Louis was The Man. Red Allen, the trumpeter with (to my mind) the most beautiful sound in jazz, wanted nothing more than to sound like Louis. Jack Teagarden tried to play him on the trombone (and succeeded). Even harbingers of modernity like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, who were offended by what they saw as Armstrong's Uncle Tom antics on stage, admitted that Armstrong was The One.

A virtue of Teachout's fine book is to place Armstrong's on-stage antics and off-stage persona in context. Armstrong was by temperament, especially while performing, a sunny person, who enjoyed performing and did not draw a line between clowning and serious music making. (That's not quite accurate. Music making was the thing he cared about most in the world -even over home and his much beloved wife Lucille--and he was deadly serious about his music, but he didn't find it incongruous to perform well, to appeal to the audience. In short, as Teachout eloquently explains, Armstrong, like many performers of his generation, saw himself as an entertainer as well as and complementary to a musician. He wanted to do well in both guises, and did.

Teachout also does the reader a favor by his sympathetic and wise assessment of Louis's later performances and recordings, from the 1930s on. This is a body of work that many critics dismiss as the wreckage left over after Louis's artistic vision left him. (Even so savvy a critic as Gunther Schuller dismissed Louis's later work as uninspired.) Teachout does not argue for virtues that aren't there in Louis's often dreary big band recordings from the thirties, but he does point to individual recordings of excellence, and I found his assessment of the small group Louis led from 1947 on, the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, convincing. (Like me, Teachout finds Russ Garcia's arrangements for Louis in the late fifties an embarrassment, and, like me, wishes that Ellington and Armstrong had made more out of their one outing together, when all that happened was that Ellington sat in on piano with Louis's All-Stars.) I have decided! It's time for me to listen to more of the Louis of the thirties and forties. I've been missing out on a potential treat! I bought my first jazz record sixty years ago, when I was thirteen. It's time for me to listen to ALL of Louis, not just cherry pick across the decades.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Teachout has scored a hit with his biography of one of the most iconic and original personalities in musical history Dec 28 2009
By Bookreporter - Published on
Format: Hardcover
In reading POPS, I figured that I was going to fill in some of the few gaps of my personal knowledge of Louis Armstrong. After all, I told myself, I played trumpet for a third of my life, have been a fan of jazz for nearly four decades, and actually own several albums of Armstrong's solo and collaborative works. So, how much more could I learn about one of my musical heroes?

A lot, it turns out. My personal gaps were both many and multi-dimensional.

My perception of how Louis (never "Louie") Armstrong and his music were affected by his environment --- his family, contemporaries and mentors --- as well as the influence he had on others and their music was woefully incomplete and in some instances downright inaccurate.

In POPS, author Terry Teachout uses numerous sources simultaneously to paint a picture of what was happening at several points in Armstrong's career --- including adding his subject's own voice via his legacy of letters and personal writings to complete the canvas. He goes into great detail describing Armstrong's relationship with his early mentors and how they shaped both his style and his outward personality. Despite talent and fame that had surpassed those of his mentors, Armstrong always remained deferential; even while occasionally playing second fiddle as a guest in his former master's bands, he never showed them up by outplaying or upstaging them. His respect for the craft and those who had introduced him to it was immense.

In describing Armstrong's early recording sessions, Teachout details the technology available at the time and the limitations it imposed on the instrumentation for the recordings. He then portrays how each member of the recording ensemble related to Armstrong both personally and musically. Finally (and probably most impressive to the jazz geek inside me), Teachout painstakingly describes note for note how Armstrong played some of his early and seminal original compositions. Several times, I found myself putting down the biography and looking for a recording to listen to for confirmation, only to find the author had nailed it dead on.

Teachout continues this impressive level of detail and completeness throughout --- which gave me a breadth and depth of understanding of Armstrong that frankly was an extremely pleasant surprise. I was even treated to several nuggets about Armstrong and his influencers and those influenced by him. I did not know, for example, that Armstrong was not only a fan of Bing Crosby but also incorporated the crooner's distinct style into his own. I was also surprised to learn that Flea (the bass player for the LA-based band "The Red Hot Chili Peppers") considers Armstrong to be among his favorite artists of all time.

Teachout has scored a hit with his biography of one of the most iconic and original personalities in musical history. And he spares no source to make certain that his description of Armstrong is complete, accurate and entertaining.

--- Reviewed by Mark Shinn
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
The biography Pops deserves! Nov. 18 2009
By kevnm - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Louis Armstrong's music and personality made him one of the most important and interesting cultural figures of the Twentieth Century. Known around the world as a jazz musician, an actor, a showman, even a memoirist, reactions to his life have revealed cultural shifts, changing values and critical trends for decades. Some see an avant-garde musical genius, others an old-show biz trouper embodying nineteenth century entertainment conventions. Some see him as a pioneer for African American pride, others an Uncle Tom.

His long, complex life and society's complex reactions to it are sensitively traced in Teachout's wonderful biography. The great stories of New Orleans and early years in Chicago and New York are fun and full of the tasty anecdotes that make Armstrong come alive in these pages. At the same time, his musical evolution is evoked through contemporaneous reviews and accounts of those who saw his most electrifying performances. All the while, the author traces the history of society's reaction to Armstrong, his music, his recordings and his persona.

The book is admirably serious for a popular biography, but even more important, it's always fun! Armstrong was a true character and his personality shines through the stories and memories here. That may be the book's greatest value - communicating the humor, the passion, the musical range and the sense of fun this great man brought to audiences for over fifty years.

This is a great, highly recommended book that's sure to increase your appreciation of Armstrong and to send you back to his music with a fresh ear.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The Definitive Satchmo Biography Dec 9 2009
By Scott T. Rivers - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Upon hearing of Louis Armstrong's death in July 1971, Bing Crosby wrote, "I know of no man for whom I had more admiration and respect." This essential biography explains why. Nicely written and researched, Terry Teachout's "Pops" brings us closer to the man behind some of the 20th century's finest music. Armstrong loved to perform and he loved to create - simple pleasures that never left him. Teachout places Satchmo's multifaceted artistry and emotional complexity in its proper perspective. The chapters on the jazz musician's formative years (including his legendary apprenticeship with the great King Oliver) are particularly compelling. Along with a detailed bibliography, the author offers a chronological list of Armstrong's "Thirty Key Recordings" from 1923 to 1963 - a daunting task, indeed.